History,  Life: bits and pieces

Travels with my ancestors #1: Things they would want me to know.

When I look at my family tree, going back seven or eight generations, I am astounded at the number of lives represented there. Each little icon, male or female, on the Ancestry.com screen, or names I’ve pencilled in on my hand drawn charts, is—was—a person. A person who was born, grew up, perhaps married, had children. A person who earned a living, learned stuff, developed likes, had their loves and their hatreds. Someone who eventually grew ill or suffered an accident or met their death in some other way. They left people who mourned them, remembered them, laughed with others about happy or funny moments, cried about the sad or terrible ones.

How many ancestors? I haven’t stopped to count them all. Trust me, there are many.

Every one of those individuals had to have lived and reproduced for me to be here. Every decision, mistake, accident of history has led to… me.

How amazing.  

I am the unique product of all those people. My own experiences, decisions and actions have led to who I am, but so too have all the actions of past generations. Their DNA, mixed in the marvellous cocktail of life, resulted in: me.

That’s astounding, don’t you think?

Why then, do we weave or stomp or trudge or dance our way through life, giving scarcely a thought to the people who made us? Our parents, of course, usually get our attention; perhaps because they are there; perhaps family resemblance is strong enough for us to recognise the link that joins our own generation to theirs. Grandparents, too, can be more visible, due to proximity, or appearance in family photo albums, or in family stories.

Go back another generation and, well…the scene is a bit emptier. Great-grandparents and beyond: we might know names, and have a vague inkling of eras, if not specific dates when they lived, but most of us are unable to describe what sort of people they may have been.

Unless, of course, you get bitten by the family history bug.

In this, I was lucky. I grew up with many diverting stories about ancestors. My father was one of a huge number of Australians proud to claim a particular Second Fleet convict; my mother had several convicts in her family tree, plus some tantalising hints of romance and some murkier stories buried in the dry records of births, marriages and deaths.  They had done much of the groundwork before me: constructing family trees and digging out those records (in the days when nothing was online, and everything had to be found in person at libraries and archive repositories.)

So, I suppose you could say I was bitten by the bug at an early age. Though it wasn’t until I’d left full-time work and had the time (and internet connection, laptop, and subscription to a family history platform) that the passion really took hold. Covid-lockdowns gave me plenty of time to dive down rabbit holes searching for that one person I needed to fill in on the tree, that one missing record or date, that hidden story.

Oh, the stories!

Romances, murders, deserted wives, divorces. Poverty, bravery, wartime heroics. Quiet fortitude and deep despair. People loving, birthing, fighting, killing, growing, leaving, losing, and winning. All of life, there in my family trees.

At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have come to believe that they would want me to know. Every story is part of the whole. Each person had their own story, important to them and to those who loved them. Something urges me to uncover their stories; while there are no doubt things that some ancestors, were they able to say, would rather that I didn’t know (crimes committed, mistakes made) I nevertheless believe I honour them by discovering and then telling their stories.

Beyond myself, the stories of my ancestors are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today. In both positive and negative ways, the ways in which they lived their lives, the choices they made and the results of those choices: all contributed to the big picture of this country I call home.

By uncovering these threads, I have a greater sense of belonging here, in this island nation on the other side of the globe from where my ancestors originated. Why did they come here? What circumstances, decisions or accidents led them to travel across the world to this place? Why did they stay?

If they had not come here, survived, stayed, married, and had children, then I would not exist. A twist of fate, or a small part of an ordained plan—I’m happy for that to remain a mystery.

I’m not happy to leave their lives to the mysterious past. I want to learn about my ancestors, and the part they played in the complex sequence of events that resulted in me.

I like to think they’d be happy about that, too.

Come with me on the journey as I travel with my ancestors. There may well be something in their stories that ignites something in you: a spark of recognition, or a longing to know more about your own family tree. What are its patterns, what characters and events are represented there? What are some of the stories of your ancestors?

All about books, reading, writing - and history.


  • Joy Stevens

    Thank you Denise, I would love to come with you on the journey to learn about your ancestors. I agree these stories “are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today”. As I get older, I appreciate more the hardships our parents and grandparents endured to build safe and enriching lives for us. In this post-modern age, the childhood experiences of my parents were so different. It was almost a century ago. I look forward to reading your journal entries. Inspiring work…

  • Peter T

    I find sobering one geneticist’s remark that we are all descended from Charlemagne and, by the same token, from his serfs and his scullery maid. Good, bad or average, it’s all in there somewhere.

    • Denise Newton

      I think anyone who says “ no criminals in my family tree” just hasn’t researched enough! Or their forebears were of the class who could pay a lot of money to have these things well hidden

  • Christine Gail Sinclair

    What a simply wonderful introduction to your story Denise. You have captured and expressed how I feel about tracing my ancestors beautifully. I’m sure anyone who has looked into their families past will relate well to your words. It is a deeply personal journey discovering the people from your past: like you said they have contributed to your own existence. As you know I’m rather new to this so every time I login I find out something new about an ancestor and the lives they lived. For me I’m also learning a lot of history and the context in which each generation lived. At times I’m shocked and other times delighted. So many emotions travel with me on this journey. There are also many secrets uncovered along the way that change your view of the world. One example is I just discovered that my dad had also served in New Guinea as well as Darwin. He never told me. Anzac day will never be the same again.
    Happy travels, step lightly x

    • Denise Newton

      Thank you Chris, I am glad you enjoyed my little piece. It’s lovely to share the journey with others; as you say it is a deeply personal experience but also one that many others are enjoying. What an incredible discovery about your father’s war service. I wonder what part of PNG he was in? Our fathers might have crossed paths at some stage while,there.


    This is the first time i have seen a photo of our grandfather. May i please have a copy of that one? I am excited to be able to read again, thank you for sharing

    • Denise Newton

      Of course! I’m happy to send you what I have. If you send me your email address via Fb messenger (or the contact form on this blog) I will email you copies. Thanks for reading!

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